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The Moon Opera

by Bi Feiyu

When Qiao Bingzhang, renowned director of the Peking Opera, meets the Factory Boss (whose name we never learn as he is just Feiyu’s metaphor for new Chinese money) he can hardly believe his luck: the Factory Boss seeks to acquire distinction for himself, in order to justify his enormous wealth (his business has prospered through the manufacture of cheap cigarettes
that are sold singly to the coolies). He offers to finance a revival of the Moon Goddess with the once celebrated Xiao Yanqiu in the lead role of Change,
with all the publicity that his influence can promote. When he is introduced to Xiao and offers her a
cigarette he deplores the fact that she is a non-smoker as it renders her unsuitable for his TV advertisements. He is not a bad man, he just has no
idea what is really involved in reviving the Opera in which Xiao had achieved her greatest success and
popularity. But old Qiao Bingzhang, ruthless in his excitement, acclaims the Factory Boss fulsomely as a true bodhisattva (angel), but he is in agony until the costume money has arrived. Only then dare the old fox
entice Xiao Yanqiu from her perch in the academy where she has taught for twenty years.

Peking Opera is the height of stylised sophistication: an aria, a recitation or a gesture expresses anger, happiness, pain or melancholy. A smile, a glance, the flinging of the water sleeves atomizes the narrative.
The orchestra, consisting of drums, gongs, wind and strings, is peculiar to the art. There are two distinct female roles: Haudain, the bold and
seductive, and Quingli, the chaste and faithful. Each role has its own logic and beauty, its own measure of decorum. Costume, wig and make-up, although heavy and uncomfortable, help to create in Quingli “an abstract
concept, a profound form, an approach, a method, a significant natural gift;” (to use Bi Feiyu’s own words) “Quingi is a woman among women, the ultimate
woman, and a touchstone for all others”. She is never an actor, but she must have a superb voice, a
beautiful figure, and a consuming ambition to excel.

Feiyu’s heroine, the once famous and adored Xiao Yanqiu, has found, in all her twenty years of teaching, only one girl, her exquisite but
inexperienced pupil, Chunlai, who grasps the essence of Quingli: it is as though she was born to follow in Xiao’s footsteps. But the Peking Opera has fallen on hard times due to lack of sophistication in the audience, and Chunlai has accepted a job on TV as
a presenter.

Feiyu’s prose is economical to the point of baldness (the book is 123 pages), his humour is anything but
lofty, and his novel falls short of satire but is long on irony. In fact, this drama is worthy of the mythical Jade Emperor, or his nephew, Erlang, he with the third, true-seeing eye.

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